The UK has some of the most beautiful green spaces, historic houses, and ancient monuments in the world – and more good news is that we also have the National Trust to look after them. Founded in 1895, in the wake of the Industrial Revolution when urbanisation was happening at record speed, the National Trust was established to protect our green and pleasant land, and to ensure everyone had a chance to enjoy some peace and relaxation away from the cities.
Many people have developed a new appreciation for the countryside over the past year and a half – so if you’re one of them, what are some of the best sites you can visit across the UK? Here are our top 10 National Trust attractions.
1. Cragside House and Gardens, Northumberland, England
Deep in the wild countryside of Northern England is Cragside, a pioneering Victorian home that’s most famous for being the country’s very first ‘smart home’.
Imagined, designed, and created by inventor and arms manufacturer Lord William Armstrong and his wife Lady Margaret, Cragside was the first house in the world to be illuminated with hydroelectricity and powered by hydraulics.
The Armstrongs loved nothing more than creating and building new inventions, and together they turned a barren, desolate heathland into spectacular grounds full of formal gardens, man-made lakes, tumbling waterfalls, soaring North American conifers, and clouds of colourful rhododendrons.
There are 40 miles of footpaths around Cragside, so if you’re into hiking you’ll be spoilt for choice; just don’t forget your walking boots, as this rocky terrain can be challenging!
The interior of Cragside house is no less beautiful, and if you’re into historical gadgets you’re in for a treat. Lord Armstrong designed and built dozens of new inventions – from a water-powered laundry to rudimental versions of a dishwasher – and today the house is chock-full of gadgets that aimed to make Victorian living that bit easier. After you’ve explored, be sure to head to the tearoom for its excellent cream tea!
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2. Powis Castle & Gardens, Welshpool, Wales
Just five miles from the English border, among the beautiful hills and meadows of the Severn Valley, you’ll find Powis Castle & Gardens; one of Wales’ most impressive historic houses.
Built around 1200, and with its red stone walls rising dramatically over the gardens, Powis Castle is a sight to behold – and its history is no less impressive.
Once a medieval fortress, the castle was inhabited by the Herbert family from the 1570s, and each generation played a part in making the castle so unique.
The collection of paintings, sculpture, furniture, and tapestries on show echo the changing times and styles throughout history – and at the castle’s Clive Museum, you can learn about Robert Clive and his son Edward (the 1st Earl of Powis), who were key figures in the colonial East India Company. The museum is home to one of the country’s most significant collections of Indian objects, which the Clives brought home with them after many raids in India and Myanmar.
In spite of this rather violent history, Powis Castle is a beautiful and peaceful place – and its gardens will take your breath away. Laid out in Italian and French styles, this is one of the most magnificent terraced gardens in Britain: clipped yew trees cascade down hills, rare flowers inject vivid colour, and dancing statues stand between elaborate herbaceous borders.
Once you’ve got your fill of history and have explored the gardens, you can enjoy a bite in the cafe and have a browse in the two shops.
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3. Culzean Castle and Country Park, Ayrshire, Scotland
Sprawled across 260 hectares, Culzean Castle and Country Park is one of Scotland’s largest and most spectacular estates. If you’re looking for a day out that’s full of history, ghost stories, and astonishing coastal vistas, you won’t find a better spot.
Built in 1777 for the Kennedy family – one of the oldest clans in Scotland – Culzean Castle is unapologetically opulent, and this turreted building looks like it’s fallen straight out of a fairy tale.
The Oval Staircase is the castle’s dramatic centrepiece, although the grand drawing room is equally impressive.
Culzean is home to one of the world’s biggest collections of swords and pistols – but it’s also said to be the home of at least seven ghosts, including a piper and servant girl who worked here in the 1800s! Horror fans may also be interested to know that several scenes from 1973’s The Wicker Man were filmed in the castle too.
In the grounds, there are 40 historical buildings and romantic follies to visit, as well as pristine formal gardens, glasshouses filled with colourful fruit, a swan pond, and an ice house.
There are also 17 miles of pathways here that wind their way through quiet glens, peaceful woodland, and sandy coastlines that hide secret caves. The walk to the beach is especially lovely and provides you with gorgeous views over the Firth of Clyde.
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4. Mount Stewart, County Down, Northern Ireland
If you’re a keen gardener, then easily one of the best National Trust properties to visit is Mount Stewart. Widely regarded as one of the most exceptional gardens in the world, Mount Stewart is the most visited National Trust property in Northern Ireland, and for good reason. The history of the house alone is inspiring (Mount Stewart has been the home of the Londonderry family since 1816), but a day out in its grounds will almost certainly inspire you to get gardening!
The grand beauty and design of the gardens is down to the 7th Marquess of Londonderry and his wife, who each had an eye for design and decided to capitalise on the mild climate of the area, where rare and exotic plants could thrive.
Today, the plant collection is unrivalled. Walk through pergola-covered walkways adorned with cornflower blue delphiniums, explore the elaborate sunken garden that’s dotted with scarlet azaleas, and admire the complex topiary in the Shamrock Garden.
Outside the gardens, there’s more beautiful land just waiting to be explored. You can enjoy lovely walks through woodland, orchards and farmland, keeping an eye out for some of the grand buildings and monuments that are scattered throughout. The neoclassical Temple of the Winds is a must-visit, and you may well spot red squirrels scurrying among the trees. Afterwards, you can relax in the tea room and have a browse in the excellent second-hand bookstore.
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5. Greenway, Devon, England
Another destination that will please readers (particularly those who enjoy crime fiction) is Greenway, the former holiday home of Agatha Christie. The esteemed crime writer herself described Greenway as “the loveliest place in the world – it takes my breath away,” and there’s a good chance this stunning Georgian house might leave you equally breathless.
Set among the undulating woodland by the bucolic Dart estuary, Greenway served as the inspiration for some of Christie’s most celebrated murder mysteries – and it’s easy to imagine Christie playing croquet in the garden and reading by the river, as she loved to do.
The house is filled with a variety of treasures, from ceramics to silver, and the library is lined with first-edition copies of Christie’s works. Be sure to check out the drawing room, where Christie would read her draft manuscripts to friends and family over cocktails!
While the house is beautiful, it’s the gardens that will probably take your breath away. You can wander up to the Boathouse (the scene of the crime in Dead Man’s Folly!), where the Christies would throw lavish parties, then explore the walled gardens, which boast a peach house and vinery, and lose yourself among the quiet riverside woodland.
Greenway is very close to the pretty village of Dittisham, so you might want to consider staying there and turning your trip into a minibreak.
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6. Chartwell, Kent, England
If you’re interested in British history then you may want to visit Chartwell; the former family home of Winston Churchill. He and his wife Clementine bought this grand house in 1922, and when Churchill wasn’t in London, he and his family lived here for the next 40 years.
The former prime minister loved Chartwell and treasured the peace and privacy this house gave him. Visiting today still feels like you’re getting an intimate glimpse into Churchill’s private life… even with all the other visitors milling around!
Churchill was a keen painter, painting over 500 canvases throughout his life, and at Chartwell, you can visit his studio which showcases many of his favourites. You can also browse through the visitor’s book and read notes from Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier, and President Truman. And because the house remains pretty much unchanged from when Churchill lived here, with photos, books, and personal mementoes still on display, it might feel as though you’ve stepped back in time.
Outside you can wander through the grounds with the garden audio guides, where you can learn all about the landscape of Chartwell as you explore it. Visit the lakes he helped design, stroll through the quiet woodland he sought solace in, and visit Marycot, a playhouse designed for his daughter. Churchill is one of the most celebrated and contested figures in British history, and at Chartwell, you can get a much deeper insight into his life.
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7. Culloden, Inverness, Scotland
Another top attraction for history buffs is the Culloden Battlefield, where the 1745 Jacobite Rising came to its bloody, tragic end.
While Culloden may not have a grand house to wander through or formal gardens to explore, it’s an extraordinarily emotive place, and as you learn about the brutal events that happened here, you may well feel the hairs begin to stand up on the back of your neck.
There are excellent exhibitions here, including a 360-degree battle immersion theatre that not only shows you the powerful lead up to the first charge but puts you right among the very centre of all the action. You’ll be able to see just what Bonnie Prince Charlie’s men went through as they fought and died here, and perhaps feel the same terror they felt as they were overwhelmed.
There’s also a great audio tour you can listen to, as well as a museum where you can learn in detail about the 1745 Rising from both perspectives. This is a place where men gathered to fight for a cause that was truly doomed, and an hour after the battle began, 1,600 men were dead – 1,500 of them Jacobites.
A sad and atmospheric attraction, but also a fascinating one where you’ll learn about one of the most devastating battles in British history.
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8. Dinefwr Castle, Carmarthenshire, Wales
With a history that stretches back more than 2,000 years, Dinefwr is one of the most intriguing places in Wales. “If you take a handful of the soil of Dinefwr and squeeze it in your hand, the juice that will flow from your hands is the essence of Wales,” wrote Wynford Vaughan Thomas – and it’s certainly true that Dinefwr holds an iconic place in Welsh history.
At the heart of the estate is the Grade II listed mansion Newton House, which has been the home to ancestors of the Welsh Prince Lord Rhys for more than 300 years.
On the first floor of Newton House, there are exhibition rooms where you can learn about what living at Dinefwr was like over the years, and discover the history, people, and landscape of this important estate. The ancient castle was home to Lord Rhys himself in the 12th century, and you can wander among its ruins while learning about how Lord Rhys influenced decisions in Wales.
Aside from Newton House and Dinefwr Castle, the estate also has an 18th-century deer park, as well as a nature reserve with flower-adorned meadows and woodlands – so you can easily spend all day here. If you build up an appetite wandering through the grounds, you can eat in the cosy fire-lit café or outdoor terrace.
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9. St Agnes Head, Cornwall, England
Cornwall tops the list of the most beautiful counties in England, and one of its most stunning sites – as well as most photographed – has got to be St Agnes Head.
Unlike the other attractions on this list, there’s no house, castle, or museum here. But there are breathtaking views over heather-covered cliffs and across the Atlantic, as well as of the haunting ruins of tin mines, an enduring reminder of Cornwall’s industrial past. If you’re a fan of BBC’s Poldark, you might also recognise St Agnes Head as the backdrop for Nampara Valley.
During WW2 St Agnes Head was used as a light anti-aircraft artillery range, and in the Napoleonic war it was a rifle range – so its quiet tranquillity today belies the action it’s seen throughout history.
If you enjoy a coastal walk, this is one of the best in the country, as South West Coast Path zigzags right across St Agnes Head and down to a hidden beach, full of secret coves. Be sure to stop off at Chapel Porth Beach, where you can treat yourself to tea and cake (or ice cream) after your walk.
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10. Blickling Estate, Norfolk, England
If you like cycling, why not visit Blickling Estate in Norfolk, a property that’s so big (4,600 acres!) that exploring it on two wheels just makes sense (and you can rent bikes on your arrival).
This is an estate that’s pervaded with history. Mentioned in the Domesday Book, it was once owned by Anne Boleyn’s grandfather, Sir Geoffrey Boleyn, and was said to be the birthplace of Anne herself. You can walk (or cycle) through formal gardens, meadows, rolling hills, and woodland; stopping to admire the views, landmarks, and wildlife.
The spectacular Jacobean mansion that stands today was built on the ruins of the Boleyn house, and you can immerse yourself in the house’s history as you explore the rooms here, including the Great Hall, state bedrooms, and the Long Gallery library with its impressive book collection.
If you get peckish after all that walking or cycling, there are two cafes on-site – and the estate also has its own country pub, The Bucks Arms, should you fancy something stronger!
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From turreted castles to dazzling formal gardens, and harrowing historical sites to elegant estates, the National Trust looks after some of the most magnificent sites in the UK. But the National Trust also owns over 780 miles of coastline, 248,000 hectares of land, and 500 historic houses – so this list is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what they have to offer.
Wherever you live in the UK, you won’t be far from an interesting National Trust attraction. You can visit their website to see which sites and properties are closest to you and start planning your next trip.
Are you a member of the National Trust? Or do you have your own recommendations for some of the best National Trust attractions in the UK? We’d love to hear your ideas! Join the discussion on the Rest Less community forum, or leave us a comment below.